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Toronto 2010: 'Submarine' rises

September 13, 2010 |  4:44 pm


Sunday night's world premiere of "Submarine" -- writer-director Richard Ayoade's enchanting adaptation of the novel by Joe Dunthorne --  marked, for me, the first real introduction of a potentially major new talent at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Many people are already aware of Ayoade's skills as a director and performer on British television shows like "The IT Crowd" and his work directing music videos for the likes of Vampire Weekend. Regardless, "Submarine" is just the kind of discovery one comes to Toronto for -- a moody, melancholy teen film that feels both timeless and up-to-the-minute fresh.

With executive producer Ben Stiller making the initial introduction, the premiere also turned out to be one of the festival's funniest events so far. "This reminds me of when we brought 'Dodgeball' to Venice," Stiller cracked as he first took the podium.

"I don't want to be one of those people who tells you how great the movie is before it's out," Stiller said. "I had that happen to me recently with 'Piranha 3D,' which was a letdown." 

Calling Ayoade an "annoyingly talented man," Stiller brought the director onstage by saying, "I don't want to jump the gun, but after the movie my producing partner Stuart Cornfeld will be in the men's room in a position to receive any and all offers."

Coming onstage, Ayoade was tall and lanky with a frizzy halo of hair adding to his height, looking nerdy-hip in thick, dark-framed glasses and clothes that verged on ill-fittingly tight. Parrying Stiller's wit, he added, "My aim obviously was to follow the funniest man in the world."

In a dry deadpan, with sentences full of twisting, uproarious asides, Ayoade started reeling off a few thank-yous, which he said was difficult given "the awful, egotistical maelstrom of self-doubt and worry" he was experiencing, while adding "also I have a very sarcastic-sounding, insincere voice."

"I've heard it's great here, it might not be good, personally. Who knows? This could be bad. So this is such a great festival, everyone's so nice, it's really good. So it might be like going out with someone who is nice for a bit and then hurts you."

Before starting the screening, Ayoade brought out the two young stars of the film, Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, as well as Sally Hawkins.

Opening with white credits against a screen of primary blue, in a typeface reminiscent of '60s-era Godard films, right from the start the movie establishes an oddball mixture of sincerity, self-consciousness and teen-angst moodiness. Set in a small town in Wales, the film follows a young man named Oliver Tate. In the lead role, Craig Roberts pulls off a performance that seems a combination of Bud Cort in "Harold and Maude" and Damian from "The Omen." The kid is strange. And yet somehow, strangely, he is also endearing, a young man trying to come to terms with a world he is learning can be senseless and confusing. The net result is a new twist on the teen film, or as Oliver says at one point, "I don't know if I've come of age, but I'm certainly older now."

The film features songs written by Alex Turner from the band Arctic Monkeys, for whom Ayoade has directed music videos. It is another small touch that Ayoade gets just right, in that whenever a song comes up, rather than some vintage pop hit or deep-cut obscurity, it is rather a new song. The series of plaintive ballads written by Turner help not only the film's strategy of feeling somehow out-of-time, but also in avoiding some of the obvious moves of Wes Anderson-inspired preciousness that often sink young filmmakers.

Ayoade tells the story with a dazzling freedom of style, in which anything seems possible. For a sequence in which Oliver claims he has already transformed his romance into "the Super-8 footage of memory," there is, sure enough, a mini-home movie titled "Two Weeks of Lovemaking." Ayoade also sometimes pushes his editing rhythms to capture the rush and thrill of young love, amplifying the adolescent sense of excitement and anxiety from something as simple as brushing sleeves in the hallway with a potential crush.

And while it is Roberts and Paige, as Oliver's mean-spirited love interest, who most carry the story -- the sequence of their first evening of seduction is at once hilariously awkward yet tender and heartwarming -- the adults in the film do much to define its parameters. Noah Taylor and Hawkins as Oliver's parents and Paddy Considine as their new neighbor put into relief just what the mysteries of the adult world may one day turn Oliver into.

Following the screening, the director and cast came out for a Q&A. The very first questioner also presented Ayoade with a small gift, to which he responded, "Could all the questions be like that, just gifts?"

Ayoade also acknowledged the influence of the film "Les Cousins" by Frenchman Claude Chabrol, the word of whose passing had spread through the festival on Sunday.

"It was like 'The Exorcist,' this film," Ayoade added, noting that besides Chabrol,  Eric Rohmer and J.D. Salinger had also passed away during production. "We killed all the greats."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo from "Submarine" of Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige. Credit: Toronto International Film Festival